Upcoming town hall to discuss I-696 contamination incident

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 24, 2020

Photo by Deb Jacques

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MADISON HEIGHTS — State and federal authorities are preparing an informational meeting for the public to review details of the contaminated water leaking out of Electro-Plating Services onto Interstate 696 in Madison Heights. The meeting will also be an opportunity to address concerns.

The meeting will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. Monday, Feb. 3, at Madison High School, 915 E. 11 Mile Road. The city of Madison Heights is organizing the event with U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, state Sen. Jeremy Moss, state Rep. Jim Ellison and Oakland County Executive Dave Coulter.

Those presenting will include officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE); and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

“We’re glad we can host this meeting,” said Mark Kimble, the president of the Madison District Public Schools Board of Education. “We share the concerns of all our citizens. We are all one city, and this situation impacts all of us.”

Motorists on eastbound I-696 originally spotted the sickly green gusher Dec. 20, spurting out of the freeway wall near Couzens Avenue. The liquid is groundwater laced with contaminants such as hexavalent chromium — a chemical known to cause cancer.

The source of the contaminants is Electro-Plating Services, 945 E. 10 Mile Road, where owner Gary Sayers, now serving a one-year federal prison sentence, illegally dumped hazardous waste into a hand-dug pit in the factory’s basement.

Extensive soil samples had been taken for testing at press time. The drinking water was also being tested out of an abundance of caution, although officials at all levels of government insist there is no risk to the drinking water, since the area’s drinking water comes from municipal sources rather than wells that could be contaminated.

The leak still prompted an urgent response, however, not only to ensure people didn’t come into direct contact with the groundwater, but to control its migration off-site. The concern was that if it got into the storm basins, it could ultimately reach the water intakes at Lake St. Clair. By that point, the contaminants would be heavily diluted, but could still cause environmental harm.

To counter this, two sump pumps have been running continuously — one in the basement pit and another at the point where the groundwater spilled onto I-696 — collecting tens of thousands of gallons of contaminated groundwater. The catch basins have also been repeatedly cleansed. At press time, the tanks had collected more than 37,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater, with more than 7,000 gallons transported to an off-site disposal and treatment facility.

Other sites with links to Sayers are also being investigated. On Jan. 10, the Detroit Fire Department found suspicious liquids in several pits at a property Sayers owns at 5900 Commonwealth St. in Detroit. The liquids are said to resemble the green contamination on I-696. Initial testing revealed heavy metals in the wastes, but no hexavalent chromium.

Also, a property that Sayers owns near Sanilac was found strewn with empty barrels that appear to have contained chemicals in the past. At press time, initial surface water and soil sample results showed no signs of contamination.

EGLE also recently began soil and groundwater testing to the south side of 10 Mile Road in Hazel Park, across from Electro-Plating Services, to see if anything migrated there.

Electro-Plating Services was shut down by state regulators several years ago when a safety inspection uncovered thousands of corroded chemical barrels in which Sayers was illegally storing industrial waste. The chemicals on-site could have combined with large amounts of water to create a highly toxic cloud of hydrogen cyanide in a densely populated area. Other concerns included combustible materials, blocked-off exits, unsecured entrances and the building’s dilapidated state, with holes in the roof through which rainwater leaked, mixing with residue in the pit and on the walls to create the toxic mess on I-696.

On Jan. 17, EGLE test results found detectable levels of per- and polyfluoroalkyl (PFAS) in the storm sewers and Bear Creek. One such compound — PFOS — was detected in Bear Creek at 17.9 parts per trillion (ppt), which exceeds the surface water criteria of 12 ppt. A sampling of Bear Creek surface water taken Jan. 8 did not contain detectable levels of hexavalent chromium.

Also Jan. 17, Madison Heights Mayor Pro Tem Roslyn Grafstein and City Councilwoman Kymm Clark attended their fourth weekly update at EGLE offices. Grafstein said she shares the residents’ frustrations about the situation.

“Much of the timeline (for test results and remediation) is out of our control,” Grafstein said. “The one thing we could act on immediately was to increase security at the building. In December, it was brought to my attention that people were randomly going to the site. This is unsafe and it is trespassing. As soon as it was brought to my attention, I asked the police chief what could be done, and he worked with the EPA to put up a security fence.”

She said that she and the other members of the City Council will continue to push the issue with the state and federal government.

“As residents continue to ask questions, we are listening,” Grafstein said. “And our deliverance of those questions have shaped the response from both EGLE and the EPA.”

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